OBA which stands for Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam boasts in total 26 branch libraries, 177,000 members and has 1.3 million books, CDs and DVDs in its collection. Amsterdam Central Library, Oosterdok is one of my favourite places in the city. The Central Library was designed by architect, Jo Coenen, the former state architect of the Netherlands. The Central Library project cost an eye-watering 80 million euros! It was completed in 2007 and was selected as the best library in the Netherlands in 2012.
When I moved to Amsterdam in 1986 I remember the rather shabby library on the Prinsengracht. Although I preferred its location along the historical ring of canals, and its homely feel, I was less charmed by the first thing that always greeted you as you entered the building; the smell of the public toilets! So it was with some excitement that I visited the new library in its location in 2007! And I still feel the same excitement and anticipation of enjoyment when I visit nowadays.
Membership isn’t Free
Unlike the UK, library membership is only free for those under 18 years old. Currently, an annual basic membership is 35 euros per year. However, you do get bang for your buck as it is not only a place to loan books, the Central Library (spread over 10 floors) has 600 computer work stations, 1200 seats and a floor entirely devoted to help those seeking work. There is also an auditorium, an exhibition room, the Gerard Reve Museum, and (not unimportant in Amsterdam) 2000 parking spaces for bicycles! On the seventh floor is a restaurant and summer terrace which offers fantastic views over the River Ij and the city. If you are visiting Amsterdam do go to the library even if it’s only to enjoy the views from the top floor.
One quarter of the second floor is entirely devoted to English language fiction. Also available are books in French, Spanish, Italian, German and Arabic, so that those who don’t speak Dutch as a first language still have plenty of literature to choose from.
Access to Libraries
It makes me sad to read about libraries in the UK closing down. It’s so very important that children and young adults have access to books. It is heartening to go to the Central Library, or indeed any of Amsterdam’s smaller local libraries, and see them being well used by people of all generations from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Libraries are one of the institutions, alongside schools, which enable social mobility and help young people to better themselves.
Back in the Seventies
Growing up in the English countryside, our school only had access to a mobile library. Being a pony-loving child I always devoured the Jill pony books by Ruby Ferguson, and of course the series by Elyne Mitchell about the wild Silver Brumby horses in Australia. If I had experienced the children’s section of the library in Amsterdam I would have exploded with excitement at all the choice on offer! The circular shelves, big stuffed animals, and soft chairs create a playful space for parents and children to enjoy together.
My favourite thing in the children’s section is, The Mouse House, made almost entirely by hand and inhabited by mice created from felt. Its creator is Karina Schaapman. The two main characters are Sam and Julia, and Schaapman has written a series of children’s books about their exploits. I could happily spend hours perusing each tiny room in the Mouse House, admiring the hand made details, imagining what Sam and Julia get up to when the library closes at night…
The OBA café
I also like just sitting in the OBA cafe situated on the ground floor and reading through the magazines. A regular thing for me is reading the short story in, The New Yorker. The stories are usually far too literary and go way over my head but I enjoy it nonetheless. Also, I find it more relaxing to catch up on UK news when reading from paper rather than a screen. The experience of smelling the news print and turning the pages helps one absorb the information more deeply. Anyway, I hope I have convinced you that the Central Library is worth a visit. Perhaps I’ll see you sometime in the OBA café! I’ll be the one reading The New Yorker with a puzzled expression on my face.